Hearts' green shoots of recovery must continue to grow before Celtic, Hibs and Rangers threaten to trample on them

Hearts got themselves back on track with a 2-0 win over Aberdeen last weekend. (Photo: Sammy Turner - SNS Group)
Hearts got themselves back on track with a 2-0 win over Aberdeen last weekend. (Photo: Sammy Turner - SNS Group)

Waiting over a year for a goal as he battled back from injury and recaptured his fitness and form, the team had been through a similar process. For too long, definitely aided by injuries to key personnel like the Northern Irishman, the Tynecastle outfit had been searching for their best levels.

There have been momentary highs and flirtations with top form but no-one at Hearts has hidden from the fact that combining European football with domestic demands last term was tricky. In the end the struggles cost them third spot and manager Robbie Neilson their job.

There was a positive reaction when Steven Naismith took over on an interim basis at the end of the campaign but the flying start to the new season many fans had hoped for when he was appointed – well, kind of – on a permanent basis never materialised.

Lawrence Shankland and Liam Boyce are putting together a fruitful partnership in attack. (Photo: Mark Scates - SNS Group)
Lawrence Shankland and Liam Boyce are putting together a fruitful partnership in attack. (Photo: Mark Scates - SNS Group)

Instead it has been a stop-start beginning, fizzling like a firework ready to crackle and soar in games at home to Rosenborg and Partick Thistle, and even, in spells, PAOK, but league form was not what anyone at the club would have wanted. Aside from the opening-day victory over an even slower starting St Johnstone, they had drawn with Kilmarnock and lost to both Dundee and Motherwell. It left them stuck in the wrong half of the Premiership table.

But it wasn’t just the scorelines that caused concern, it was the manner of the performances, that lacked enough incisive, forward momentum, a high enough tempo to trouble rivals and signs that the defence was not capable of dominating opposition strikers.

So much of that was addressed as they ran out fairly comfortable winners against the team that had leapfrogged them to ensure a top-three finish last season. They received plaudits as well as points but there is a cautious edge to the optimism that display generated.

After all, Aberdeen have not been the side they were. The relentless run of wins churned out after Barry Robson took over, has been replaced by an opening period of zero league points, leaving them second bottom of the standings, level with the McDiarmid Park side on a paltry two points and a miserable goal difference of minus-six.

So, that means that Hearts have picked up their only two league wins against the two poorest teams in the division. The points mean the same, regardless who they come against, but that context is important when weighing up the credibility of any return to form and the sustainability of it.

When the fixtures were revealed in the summer, there would have been a feeling that Hearts had been granted the opportunity to get some early points on the board. In their opening round of matches, only the meeting with Livingston would have to wait longer than the head to heads with derby rivals Hibs, then Celtic and Rangers. On paper, that offered them an opportunity to build some momentum. But, on paper, Aberdeen should have been their toughest test prior to that trio but, as Saturday showed, games are not contested on a tactics board or a betting slip.

“I think we caused them a lot of problems today and I thought we were solid and deserved the victory,” said Boyce and few who watched would honestly disagree. “Making runs off the ball and making decisions much better with the ball. I think that was the main difference in how we played.”

But the need now is to reproduce that against a St Mirren side who have backed up last season’s top six finish with a productive start to the current campaign. Currently sitting in second spot, four points clear of Hearts, Naismith’s men have to prove how serious they are about reclaiming the top three finish they passed up last term, and grab the win over a team who have always tended to make life tough for the capital side and definitely punched above their weight when facing them last term.

The fact they are back on the road, though, in a week where they face St Mirren away, followed by a Viaplay Cup quarter-final against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park and then the lengthy road trip to Dingwall to meet Ross County, will make things trickier. This is a team that struggled on the road last year, dropping points in more than half their away games, winning just three of 19. It wasn’t good enough for a team with their lofty ambitions. But Naismith and his players have identified the need to improve on their travels and the man who saw his job title shift from technical director to head coach following the club’s European exit has been around the club long enough to acknowledge that problem area.

Not easy, but if he can find a solution, even a partial one, that should catapult them up the standings because their home form tends to be more resolute.

On Saturday there were definitely signs of improvement. Passages of play offered hope and conjured up goals, key men such as Boyce, and the intelligent link up play between him and Lawrence Shankland spelled greater danger, while seeing the likes of Kye Rowles elevate his performance gave the defence greater assuredness and sturdiness.

They now need to pack all those elements into the kit hampers and take them with them to Paisley, Kilmarnock and Dingwall. If they can do that, then fans and observers will believe that they are finding their feet after a slow start. And that the three points on Saturday were down to their improvement and not how abject Aberdeen remain in the league. If that is the case, then they could build up some momentum before Hibs, Celtic and Rangers pose their own questions.